La Vita di Benvenuto Cellini, wr. 1558-1562, pb. 1728 (The Life of Benvenuto Cellini, a Florentine Artist, 1771; better known as Autobiography)
The son of Giovanni Cellini, a Florentine musician and maker of musical instruments, Benvenuto Cellini (chayl-LEE-nee) was named Benvenuto (which literally means “welcome”) because he was the first son born to his parents, who had been married eighteen years. At the age of fifteen, he was apprenticed to a Florentine goldsmith, Marcone, although his father long clung to the hope of making the boy a musician; in fact, largely in deference to his father’s wishes, Cellini did become a skillful flutist but resented the interference of “that accursed music” with his own preference for metal working and sculpture.
Always quarrelsome, he was banished from Florence for six months because of a fight. He went to Siena and Bologna, where he engaged in metal work, and at the age of nineteen he made his first trip to Rome. There, some of his work for the bishop of Salamanca attracted the notice of Pope Clement VII, to whose court he became attached as a musician. By his own account, he took part in the defense of Rome against the army of the Constable de Bourbon, performing, as he puts it, “incredible” feats of valor, including the shooting of the Bourbon himself.
After an interval spent in Florence and at the court of the duke of Mantua, Cellini returned to Rome, where he was employed in setting jewelry and in executing dies for private medallions, as well as for the papal mint. By 1529, he seems to have committed at least two homicides as well as to have been engaged in a number of brawls. He fell from papal favor, but he was reinstated under Paul III. Later, he again had to flee Rome, this time going to Florence and Venice, but again he was pardoned.
In 1537, he made his first trip to the court of Francis I of France. On his return to Italy, he was imprisoned on a charge of having embezzled the gems of a pontifical tiara during the attack upon Rome. His memoirs give a graphic, at times lurid, account of his unsuccessful attempt to escape, of the hardships of his imprisonment, of his foiling of a poison plot against his life, and of his religious visions.
Released at the intercession of the cardinal of Ferrara, he returned to Francis I, spending about five years in arduous work for the French ruler. In 1545, he returned to his native city of Florence, where he spent the balance of his life, though not much more serenely than before. He tells, for example, of a violent quarrel with the sculptor Baccio Bandinelli, who had accused Cellini of sexual perversions, of his participation in the defense of Florence in the war with Siena, and of his shabby treatment at the hands of his ducal patrons there. He continued to receive widespread acclaim for his work, however. It is commonly believed that at his death in Florence on February 13, 1571, he was still unmarried and without children, although some sources state that he married Piera de Salvadore Parigi about 1565.
His works, many of which have been lost, include a variety of gold medallions and a salt cellar done for Francis I. Of a more ambitious scope are his bronze group Perseus Holding the Head of Medusa; silver statues of Jupiter, Mars, and Vulcan; and a bust of Julius Caesar.
Cellini’s Autobiography, begun in 1558, is the source for most of the information about him. The style is racy, direct, and energetic, and, with apparently no sense of incongruity, Cellini blends sensuous love of beauty, religious fervor, brash self-congratulation, eroticism, haggling, and homicide. The work can thus be considered a crystallization of much that is characteristic of the Italian Renaissance.